Anja from Siberia
Remote ice pocket
I am from a really, really small town. It’s not even a town. It’s a village in Siberia, a few hundred kilometers from the Arctic Ocean. The town was founded the year I was born, 1988, because they found natural gas in the middle of the forest. They needed people to work there so they brought in two or three thousand people. That city is the capitol of the region, which is about the size of France but has only 80,000 people. (By contrast, France has a population of 67 million)
It’s always cold and snowing. We have no spring, no fall, and only one month of summer. It snows until June, then in July, it’s maybe 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit). Everything thaws in a week and all of the animals come out. Then in August, it’s snowing again. There is so much snow, we don’t even have roads. The only way to get to the town is by helicopter.
Gender relations are also incredibly weird where I am from. Women work, often more hours than men because they make less money than men. She also has to wake up at 5 in the morning to cook lunch for her husband. Then she has to prepare everything for the kids, cook, clean, iron, everything. In the evening, she comes back later than her husband but she still has to take care of herself, make herself beautiful and cook a big dinner. My mom was like this. Really the women in Russia are super women.
Men on the other hand, are quite different. We actually really have a lot fewer males in Russia because the life expectancy for men is so low. The average age for women is 76 and for men it’s 66 (stats from 2014).
Men also start drinking really early. This is actually why I broke up with one of my exes. He would disappear and go drinking for three weeks at a time. Not just drinking weekends but the whole three weeks. Men also really get physical a lot and people see it as normal. It happened in my family and to a lot of my friends. People think that being with someone who treats you like trash is still better than being alone. If you are thirty and not married, you are thrown out by society.
My grandma on my dad’s side, who was born in WWII Germany, was actually married seven times. In Russia that is a no go, like really a no go. Someone who marries twice in Russia is not a good citizen. Someone who marries seven times…
(editors note: as soon as Anja stared speaking about her grandma and her seven husbands, her tone completely changed and she actually started to whisper as if the shame of such a thing was even too much for our phone conversation)
Her husbands kept on dying. It’s a sad story, she had five kids, all from different husbands. One kid even died with one of the husbands. She just kept burying them, a lot of them were just drunks. Normal Russian things like drinking and forgetting to turn off the fire, alcohol poisoning, drinking coma or drinking and going to swim. This was her life. I think one husband was drinking and riding a horse and he fell off.
The town lesbian
From when I was seven years old, I had this best friend; we were like twins. We would sleep at each other’s houses five nights a week, we did the same sports, we loved the same boy. We were also very exclusive. It’s funny because with my partners, I don’t really experience jealousy, but with my friends, I’m really paranoid and jealous.
Already by ten, people started joking that we were lesbians but I didn’t even know what that meant. We never had sexual education in school and my parents never talked to me about anything. I never even saw my parents kissing or doing any kind of physical stuff, it was all very hidden. I didn’t even know how people kissed on the mouth.
Then one of the many nights we were spending the night together and sharing a bed, I don’t know what happened but my friend and I just started kissing and fingering each other. I don’t even think I had masturbated or seen a porn before we were so young. I’m not even really sure how I knew to do it. It just felt so natural. I was a bit scared though if it was too deep or something. I was afraid she could lose her virginity. This happened a few times over our years of friendship, but we never talked about it.
Not only would people call us lesbians because we were together all of the time but my mom started to call me a lesbian because she thought I was boyish. I always wore pants, I cut my hair short, I never wore make up, and I never wore sexy underwear or bras. A lot of girls who had boobs would have bras that give you shape and I hated them. My mom kept buying them for me but I never wore them.
I don’t think I was so boyish, I just think I was not what they wanted out of femininity. My mom had this joke, she would say, “oh your dad has bigger tits than you.” I always had small breasts but it’s a weird thing to remember about my mom. I also never plucked my eyebrows so she would say that I had the eyebrows of my dad. It was the 90s and everyone plucked their eyebrows. Especially in Russia, everyone had this stripe of really tiny, almost invisible eyebrow.
I am not sure if my mom actually thought I was a lesbian or not but she was unhappy about the way I looked. She wanted a girl. She wanted a girl who wore dresses and make up.
Funny enough, when my brother was born, she started dressing him up in dresses.
For a long time I was not sure if I was into men or women. I wondered if I had this suppressed lesbian part of me that I was never able to explore. I always would have crushes on friends and women in Russia but I would never dare act on them because of society.
When I was seventeen, I moved to Saint Petersburg and I felt I finally had the chance to figure it out. I started dating a woman and ending up falling in love with her. I was on a volleyball team at the time and I brought her to one of our matches. It was such a horrible idea. After they found out I had a girlfriend, the girls all said they couldn’t change in front of me anymore. They would all go and change in the toilet.
I cried so much about this.
It was just one match that I brought her and I lost all of that trust. They wouldn’t speak to me anymore. We had been playing together for half a year already and I didn’t think they would care.
But it’s Russia, it’s really homophobic.
I didn’t play with that team much longer because of this mistrust. It was all different levels. It wasn’t just the changing; I really felt that people were treating me different.
I also had one boy friend in Saint Petersburg who had so many problems because he “looked gay” by Russian standards. He was super skinny, wore tight jeans, open shirts that showed his chest, a choker and had long, permed hair.
It wasn’t unusual for him to get harassed but one day when we were in the train, this huge man started aggressively swearing at him. He got closer and closer to us, ready to hit my boyfriend in the face. We jumped out of the train and the man ran after us. It wasn’t so unusual to be harassed but this was the scariest because it was during the day around a bunch of people. In these moments, I would normally try to kiss him and show he wasn’t gay but in this case, we just had to run. I am pretty sure that this guy would have beaten him just to blood and no one would have stopped him. No one would say anything. People wouldn’t even care. A lot of people in Russia don’t take gay people seriously. In some cases, they don’t even see them as human, just a thing to joke about.
Another thing that really traumatized me was that when we were twelve, all of the girls in my class went together to the gynecologist, like some kind of school trip.
When it was my turn, the doctor didn’t even look inside of me. She told me I had a lot of male hormones so I would probably have a hard time getting pregnant. I cried so much because I knew from really early on that I wanted kids. She just looked at the top of my pubis where I already started to have hair. Later I asked my aunt, who was a pharmacist, and she said it was probably because of how my hair grows. She said a special direction or thickness of the hair shows that I have more male hormones. I also didn’t have tits at twelve so maybe that was also a part of it.
That was a lot of the reason I started to shave my vagina hair, like maybe if I shave it, the male hormones will go away.
I didn’t think about this again for a number of years until my husband and I couldn’t get pregnant. I told him maybe I wasn’t getting pregnant because of the male hormones and he was like
“What is this bullshit? Where did you hear this?”
I just carried this idea with me. Of course once you think about it, how can you possibly check if you have more male hormones or female hormones just by looking at a vagina? A lot of these kinds of things just stay with you until you are forced to confront the idea.
Watch out boy she’ll chew you up, she’s a maneater
When I was growing up, my mom started to have some pretty bad mental health problems. Even after being so harsh towards me about “being a lesbian,” she started talking all of the time about how horrible men where. She would tell me all of the time to never go out with a man, never fall in love with a man, never trust a man. In the last fifteen years, I don’t think she has had any contact with men. Something really changed in her mind.
My mom and dad were pretty miserable together and when I was fourteen, she basically told my brother and I that she was unhappy because of us. She said she never loved my dad and that she had this life just because of children and we should be thankful that she sacrificed her life in order to make us happy. My mom was pretty fucked up. She left us and signed the papers saying that we were not her kids anymore. She made us guilty for her unhappiness.
It just came to a point where I thought I never want to make someone be with me. I really freaked out when I got pregnant because I didn’t want my husband to think that he had to be with me just because we had a kid together. We had always had an open relationship but when I got pregnant, I went a bit crazy and really pushed hard for both of us to date more people.
It’s not just my mom either. I have this thing in my family actually that’s quite interesting.
My mom’s mom left my grandpa at around fifty years old, the same age my mom was when she left, and went into the same full denial of relationships.
Then there was my great grandma, who was also around fifty when she left her family and went to a shaman village.
My region has a lot of shaman villages. People would go there to get treatment if they needed healing or anything. The shamans were always men though and mostly Inuit.
She was neither of these things.
All of my aunts would always tell me the story of how she left her husband and kids and went to one of these shaman villages and did this healing. They didn’t call her a shaman, they called her a Babka, sort of a healing grandma. She lived there and healed people. After a while, people starting telling my aunts that their mother was turning men into pigs. It was only men; she couldn’t do it with women.
Because of this history of women in my family, I was worried that maybe it would happen to me. I went to a psychologist, but they couldn’t tell me anything. In all of these women, there were no signs of mental health problems or anything until they were around 45, so I still have some years to go.